The Ferguson Police Department has engaged in a pattern of racially biased policing, Attorney General Eric Holder said in a forceful address Wednesday, marking the conclusion to a pair of long-awaited federal investigations into the epicenter of unrest sparked by the shooting death of unarmed teen, Michael Brown.
“Of course, violence is never justified. But seen in this context -- amid a highly toxic environment, defined by mistrust and resentment, stoked by years of bad feelings, and spurred by illegal and misguided practices -- it is not difficult to imagine how a single, tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg,” Holder said.
Earlier in the day, the Justice Department released its findings for two separate investigations: The first, clearing Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson of committing any civil rights violations in the teen’s death. This comes after a St. Louis grand jury declined to criminally charge Wilson last November. The second, and more searing of reports, unearthed troves of alarming evidence pointing to widespread bias within the city’s police department, at times motivated by money.
Holder on Wednesday did not hold back in condemning not only the Ferguson Police Department, but also top city officials as responsible for the underlying conditions that bred deep chasms of mistrust between them and the community. “This investigation found a community that was deeply polarized,” Holder said, “a community where deep distrust and hostility often characterized interactions between police and area residents.”
Indeed, the scathing 103-page report concluded that the Ferguson Police Department committed countless constitutional violations, conducted unreasonable searches and seizures, used excessive force when unnecessary -- even on children -- and all disproportionately impacting African-Americans.
Some of the most eye-popping evidence showed that the police officers not only displayed racial bias, but that their department's policies reinforced stereotyping. Looking at the statistics alone, the investigation found that though blacks made up 67% of residents in Ferguson, from 2011 to 2013, African-Americans accounted for 85% of vehicle stops, 90% of citations and 93% of arrests.
The anecdotal evidence gets even worse, with black residents who told investigators stories of being harassed by police for no apparent reason. One man said he was sitting in his car, cooling off after playing basketball, when an officer stopped without cause and accused the man of being a pedophile. When the man refused a pat-down, the officer then reportedly pointed a gun at his head and arrested him. Because the arrest went on his record, the man said he lost his job as a contractor as a result.
It wasn't just police officers who were found to exacerbate racial tensions. According to the report, the municipal courts also imposed unnecessary harm overwhelmingly targeting the black community. It was a vicious cycle that was often perpetuated by a driving push for police to issue citations to residents in order to raise revenue from fees and fines carried on the backs of the city's residents. “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the city’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs,” the report stated.
There were even some instances in which investigators unearthed evidence of city officials actively soliciting additional funds from the police chief by raking up more citations to cushion the budget. In one email exchange outlined in the report, the city finance director went to Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson with his concerns that the city would face a significant budgetary shortfall. “Court fees are anticipated to rise about 7.5%. I did ask the chief if he thought the PD could deliver 10% increase. He indicated they could try,” the finance director wrote in an email.
Often, police officials didn’t even care about how the officers brought in the revenue, just as long as they were raking in the funds. According to the report, officers would routinely issue three or four charges in a single police stop. In one instance, an encounter resulted in 14 citations. "Indeed, officers told us that some compete to see who can issue the largest number of citations during a single stop,” the investigators wrote.
The Ferguson Police Department's frequent use of excessive force was of particular concern to investigators. "Supervisors seem to believe that any level of resistance justifies any level of force," they wrote. Evidence of which residents were targeted spanned large age ranges -- including young teens -- and even included the mentally ill.
The release of the report comes near the end of Holder's historic term as attorney general. Holder vowed to see through the end of the DOJ's inquiry into the unrest in Ferguson, an embroiled situation that he addressed with a personal touch by meeting face-to-face with the community and telling his own racially charged stories of police encounters in his youth.
Calling the investigation both “fair and rigorous” from the start, Holder on Wednesday also acknowledged that the findings of the report into Brown’s death may not stack up to the public’s hopes and expectations. Still, the attorney general appeared hopeful that Ferguson could overcome its issues, stressing that city officials must make immediate and wholesale changes to the St. Louis suburbs practices. "Although dialogue, by itself, will not be sufficient to address these issues -- because concrete action is needed -- initiating a broad, frank, and inclusive conversation is a necessary and productive first step," he said.